Michael Engelhard | Breitbarted

A Greenpeace activist dressed as a polar bear visits the Mounted Household Cavalry in central London, demanding global action to protect the Arctic. The activity is part of the ‘Arctic Rising’ actions which follow the rising sun across the globe on the longest day, June 21st. Greenpeace is campaigning for a global sanctuary around the north pole, and a ban on oil drilling and unsustainable fishing in the wider Arctic. Image courtesy of Greenpeace London.

It’s an old saw that, once writers release their creations into the world, they sort of relinquish control over them. Released like birds, words come home to roost or fall prey to sniping ambush. I am not speaking of rights signed over to publishers here, or of the comments sections of online publications—home for truculent trolls—but rather, the byzantine practice of syndication.

In Wikipedia’s lingo, “print syndication distributes news articles, columns, comic strips, and other features to newspapers, magazines and websites,” offering “reprint rights and permissions to other parties for republishing content of which they own or represent copyrights.” This legalese may make your head spin, as it does mine, and blurs into the fine print of publishing agreements for journalistic articles or even for books, easily overlooked by authors who crave paychecks and for their words to appear in print. Imagine my surprise when I recently found an essay of mine first published in High Country News reposted on an adventure magazine’s site. While I welcomed seeing my byline spread when I was trying to promote two new books, I couldn’t help wondering what HCN reaped in syndication fees, compared to what they had paid me. I have written for this publication for years and this was the first time I noticed they sold my writing elsewhere. Despite a clause that probably hides in some nook of the official author agreement, I somehow felt sidelined, betrayed.

At least, the literary adventure magazine that picked up the article was fairly aligned with my philosophy, bolstering some of the things in which I believe, such as wilderness preservation, and carefully told stories.

“The moral duty of the free writer is to begin his work at home: to be a critic of his own community, his own country, his own government, his own culture. The more freedom the writer possesses, the greater the moral obligation to play the role of critic.” Edward Abbey wrote this, and each time I put fingers to keyboard, I try to remember this responsibility. Since November 8, this has become even more pressing.

The gist of most of my writing, colored by the above principle, seemed at least to protect it against hijacking by alt-right or even just conservative editors. I did not understand the centrifugal force of thoughts liberated from context. It’s another old hat that the Good Book, by way of aphoristic quote can be used to prove and disprove about anything. But who would have thought that a 1,500–word slice, a verbal weighing or “assaying” by a self-confessed river dirtbag and “extreme fringe-environmentalist,” could be used as ammunition to bring down the bastions of reason?

I had submitted this excerpt of my most recent cultural history Ice Bear to an “independent digital media project dedicated to covering Arctic issues.” This clearinghouse, with the stated mission of advancing foreign policy literacy through public service journalism, and whose partners include Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and Rice University’s Baker Institute for public policy, seemed a good venue for my thoughts on the iconic white ursid. Mind you, this wasn’t about polar bears in snow globes or on Christmas cards; it was The Polar Bear as National Symbol [of Canada] and Emblem of Conservation. Sure, I had been critical in writing this of the “branding” of polar bears in which today not only corporations but also NGOs and even environmental organizations engage. I had touched upon failed inter-governmental efforts to implement bans on trade in endangered species or their parts (CITES); on high-concept art which addressed climate change through the emblematic bears; and Canadian cost-benefit analyses for feeding or relocating starving, landlocked bears; as well as the estimation in which citizens hold different mammal species (expressed in dollars they are willing to spend for the animal’s preservation). In short, I had tried to draw a complex and nuanced picture without outing myself as the firebrand treehugger I am.

You can imagine my shock when, after Googling my latest work (which author is immune against this?), I found that “Breitbart” had syndicated it. For people still living under a rock: Breitbart News Network is a right-wing or far-right news, opinion, and commentary website, a “potent voice” in the last presidential campaign, whose Executive Chair soon will be the White House Chief Strategist. Carefully re-reading my essay, I realized that my attempt at objectivity—the anthropological lens I had trained on our uses of the bear—and the lack of the excerpt’s context had allowed enough ambiguity for the axis of evil to harness my efforts to their hellish cart.

Alas, Breitbart did not even provide a comments section for me to put things in perspective.

Far greater writers than I have suffered this fate. According to one interpretation, even Ben Franklin’s “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety” did not mean what I’d like it to mean. Incorruptible, outspoken journalism is one safeguard of such Liberty. ~

Michael Engelhard is the author of the essay collection, American Wild: Explorations from the Grand Canyon to the Arctic Ocean, and of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon. He lives in Fairbanks, Alaska and works as a wilderness guide in the Arctic.

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